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Over ruled – How the head trumps the heart

- Ufrieda Ho

Our brain is a complex organ – it keeps us breathing, helps us pull our hands from a fire, and keeps our emotions, fears and dreams in check.

Human and the brain ©

Your work crush flashes you a smile, your heart beats faster and your day is instantly brighter. Your anger at being cut off in traffic earlier is soothed, and the sinking reality of load-shedding and economic junk status lifts a little.

We’re a churn of emotions most days; seemingly ruled by the neurotransmitters firing in our limbic system, as the brain learns to regulate our emotions over time. 

“The brain stops you from running up and planting a passionate kiss on your work crush’s lips,” says Dr Sahba Besharati in Wits’ Department of Psychology and Wits NeuRL (Neuroscience Research Lab).

Our brain’s executive functioning is mostly housed in the pre-frontal cortex. Executive functions – our control mechanisms – help to put brakes on our emotions, to hold back on our ‘animal impulses’, so that our emotions aren’t acted on so hastily that we are left a train wreck of awkward regret. 

Professor Paul Manger of the School of Anatomical Sciences says our brains are comprised of neurons and glia cells. The neurons are specialised cells responsible for transmitting nerve impulses, while glia cells maintain homeostasis, form myelin, and provide support and protection for neurons in the brain. This neural tissue forms the body’s HQ, and while it functions mechanistically, there also appears to be some magic.

“There are neural-based phenomena, such as conscious experiences, that we cannot yet explain mechanistically,” he says.

While we are focused on other things, such as reading a book, our brains keep us breathing and keep blood pumping through our veins. The brain is simultaneously receiving signals from our senses, interpreting the signals and proposing a range of actions based on these signals.

The process of how we decide whether to act on or ignore these ‘options’ is still mysterious, but we know this occurs in our frontal lobes.

Manger says the way our frontal lobes condone or veto the potential actions and responses created by the brain, is based on a combination of our nature and our personal history (how we have been nurtured). This also applies to actions where our unconscious thoughts hold more sway on our desires, urges and behaviours.

“At our most basic, our brains are wired for us to simply survive, to reproduce and then to raise our young. But we are also divided between nature and nurture, which means that our responses to the signals our brains receive are also based on our personal histories, which affect the way our brains generate emotions, and store and recall memories,” says Manger.

While our brain is made up of distinct centres, with distinct functions, it is bound together as one exquisite piece of human machinery. For instance, our emotions emanate from neural activity in our limbic system. Our brains manage our flight or fight responses and produce ‘feel-good’ chemicals such as endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine. And in the case of bad feelings, it’s the rush of cortisol that signals our ‘get away quick’ response. 

We also have dreams and cravings, memories and experiences that add to our knowledge bank and hopefully help us develop some wisdom too.

Besharati says our brains develop throughout our lives, shaped by the environment and our experiences, and we develop and display the emotional responses to match.

“The first 1 000 days from conception to when we are two-years-old is a critical period of brain development. During this time we see rapid growth through synaptic blooming and connectivity, and we see similar rapid changes again during adolescence.”

Adolescence is the period of life when hormone fluctuations are intense and peer pressure and risk-taking behaviours are at their peak. This period of our lives is widely misunderstood, and along with it comes remarkable changes in the development of our brain.

After we turn 30, our brains reach a plateau in terms of development. However, brain plasticity remains throughout our lifespan. Leading neuroscientists in the United Kingdom have developed a theory called the Optimism Bias – where we overestimate the likelihood of positive events and downplay the probability of negative ones.

“According to this theory, our moods and feelings are affected by the load of ‘adulting’ in our middle years, as opposed to adolescence and early adulthood where the Optimism Bias is at its peak,” says Besharati.

It is the burden of paying school fees, caring for ageing parents and, in our era of the Covid-19 crisis, envisaging the worst-case scenario, while still working out the week’s dinner menu. Emotions of anxiety, fear and despondency can become our dark shadows. Couple this with sleep deprivation, social isolation, the pressure to perform at work, and trying to match or better people’s curated lives on social media, and it makes for a heavy psychological burden.

The good news though, says Besharati, is that once we pass the 60-year mark the Optimism Bias is renewed. 

Ongoing research on the Optimism Bias in humans (in spite of the documented changes during midlife) show our brains may be wired to be optimistic rather than realistic. It keeps us engaged, open to imagining a better future and inspired.

“Our brains are unbelievably plastic,” Besharati says. It is a suppleness that allows for new neural pathways to develop so that we can break unhealthy patterns and develop appropriate coping mechanisms. Ultimately, we can change our minds, change our responses and therefore our feelings, with the appropriate environmental influences and possible interventions.

The mind can be kept agile and fit with exercise, a natural, peaceful environment, strong supportive networks, sleeping enough and choosing a healthier diet. Besharati says mindfulness meditation and visualisation are useful techniques to enhance our interoceptive sensitivity – the practice of accurately reading our internal bodily sensations like breathing or our heartbeat.

“It is natural to want to be in control of our feelings and emotions so that we are not driven just by impulse, but this is something that the brain learns to do as influenced by experiences.” she says.

  • Ufrieda Ho is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 10th issue, themed: #Mood how our mental health and wellbeing are impacted by the socio-economic, political, psychological, legal, ethical, cultural and technological interpretations of our world.